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Where Would We Be Without Copyright Law?

My in-box today featured two links, each of which is all the more striking because of its juxtaposition with the other.

This piece from the German publication Der Spiegel, “The Real Reason for Germany’s Industrial Expansion?,” summarizes a recent book by the German historian Eckhard Höffner.

Höffner has researched that early heyday of printed material in Germany and reached a surprising conclusion — unlike neighboring England and France, Germany experienced an unparalleled explosion of knowledge in the 19th century.

German authors during this period wrote ceaselessly. Around 14,000 new publications appeared in a single year in 1843. Measured against population numbers at the time, this reaches nearly today’s level. And although novels were published as well, the majority of the works were academic papers.

The situation in England was very different. “For the period of the Enlightenment and bourgeois emancipation, we see deplorable progress in Great Britain,” Höffner states.

Indeed, only 1,000 new works appeared annually in England at that time — 10 times fewer than in Germany — and this was not without consequences. Höffner believes it was the chronically weak book market that caused England, the colonial power, to fritter away its head start within the span of a century, while the underdeveloped agrarian state of Germany caught up rapidly, becoming an equally developed industrial nation by 1900.

Even more startling is the factor Höffner believes caused this development — in his view, it was none other than copyright law, which was established early in Great Britain, in 1710, that crippled the world of knowledge in the United Kingdom.

Germany, on the other hand, didn’t bother with the concept of copyright for a long time. Prussia, then by far Germany’s biggest state, introduced a copyright law in 1837, but Germany’s continued division into small states meant that it was hardly possible to enforce the law throughout the empire.

The book is “Geschichte und Wesen des Urheberrechts” (roughly, The History and Nature of Copyright), available (two volumes) for 68 euros.

If this history of copyright suggests that the law itself channels success and failure more than it encourages broad development and diffusion of knowledge, then a superb modern acknowledgement of the same point comes from this summary at Ars Technica of a proposal that federal law should require that FM radio receivers be bundled with mobile phones.  Record labels and radio broadcasters are, it appears, all in favor.  Such an expansion of the pie would, presumably, facilitate a deal on public performance rights for sound recordings.  If such a deal emerges and the proposal goes forward, we will likely hear that it has nothing, whatsoever, to do with copyright interests and is all about making consumers — who seem (to me, anyway) to be pretty happy with their current and still-evolving range of music-access options — “better off.” 

There will always be an England.

Bonus video: